16th January 2015 at 00:00

A recent comment in TES from a respected educationalist caused me to wonder if I'd read it correctly. Among the coming game-changers in computer-based assessment, Sir Michael Barber said, would be "automated essay marking" ("Could this be the end of education as we know it?", News, 12 December).

Perhaps I have misinterpreted this, but is he really suggesting that a computer will soon be able to assess the quality of children's writing? Will the teacher feed the essay into a piece of software, where the text will be scanned and points awarded for the use of acceptable adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and similes? Will the computer then smile and say, "That's great, Neville. You've scored a level 5 and I've just reduced your teacher's marking workload"?

Looking back, I understand exactly how I became a writer. At a very young age, my mother constantly read interesting stories to me. At primary school, my teachers instilled a love of creative writing. I wrote about pirates, daring jungle expeditions and thrilling crime sagas where I was the boy detective who thwarted the villain.

When I reached headship, I resolved that my staff would share my enthusiasm for creative writing and communicate it to their students; I organised workshops to make sure that this happened.

But gradually, I found myself battling against the government's determination to grind everything into data, levels and measurable outcomes. It seemed that the young teachers I was recruiting had been trained to give out worksheets containing chunks of prose and ask children to identify points of grammar, with little consideration for the writing itself.

One newly qualified teacher read George Layton's The Fib with her pupils, a wonderful short story that resonates with primary classes. I asked how the children had reacted. "Oh, we're just looking at extracts," the teacher said.

In this brave new world, strange things were occurring, especially with Year 6 attainment tests. I marvelled at a child's description of the joy of eating his mother's spaghetti bolognese - a delightful piece of writing that scored a mere level 3. Another piece - a dull and repetitive zoo visit - scored a level 5. The latter contained perfect spelling and punctuation and the former didn't, so the examiners were clearly playing it safe.

The next year, my Year 6 teachers compiled lists of complex words, punctuation and grammar for the children to slip into their tests, and they were rewarded with the highest scores for years.

If children's imagination will count for nothing because the outcome is determined by a computer, then I fear for the future of creative writing. Years ago, when a whale was stranded in the Thames, my Year 6 teacher jumped on a bus with her children to record the experience. The writing produced was among the best student work I have ever read. But now, she would probably give out a couple of paragraphs from Moby Dick instead.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email:


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